Lisa Coffey petitioned the Municipality of Anchorage Police and Fire Retirement Board (Board) for permanent occupational disability benefits under Plan III of Anchorage Municipal Code (AMC) 3.85.230. The Board denied her claim and awarded her non-occupational benefits under AMC 3.85.240. Ms. Coffey appealed the Board's decision to the superior court. AS 22.10.020(d); Alaska R. Appellate P. 602. The superior court reversed the Board's decision. It concluded that there was not substantial evidence to support the Board's conclusion that Ms. Coffey's disability was non-occupational. The Board appeals. We affirm.
II. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
A. FACTUAL BACKGROUND
Lisa Coffey was employed as a police officer and call taker by the Municipality of Anchorage Police Department (APD) for approximately six years. On January 1, 1990, she was attempting to make an arrest. She was knocked down and kicked in the left shoulder blade area by the arrestee. She was wearing a three-to-four pound Kevlar protective vest when she was kicked. Ms. Coffey sought treatment from Dr. James C. Emerson, a chiropractor, for the injuries she sustained in this episode. Although the parties do not agree when Dr. Emerson began treating Ms. Coffey's left shoulder, Dr. Emerson's chiropractic records from January 2, 1990 show that Dr. Emerson adjusted Ms. Coffey's left hip and thoracic area, set her jaw, and took an x-ray of her lumbar region the day after the accident.
After being released by Dr. Emerson, Ms. Coffey returned to full duty until August of that year. During this time she worked regular shifts for the APD with no medical restrictions. She claims that she continued to experience nagging minor symptoms in varying degrees during this period, although there is no record of medical treatment. In August Ms. Coffey reported to Dr. Denise Z. Anderson, her family physician, that she had experienced pain and numbness in her left arm. Dr. Anderson referred Ms. Coffey to Dr. Robert Fu, a physiatrist, for testing. After evaluating Ms. Coffey's condition, Dr. Fu diagnosed Ms. Coffey as suffering from thoracic outlet syndrome. He recommended that Ms. Coffey change occupations.
Ms. Coffey worked light duty in the training department from September 1990 through December 1991. During this period the physicians treating her never released her to return to full duty. In December the APD terminated Ms. Coffey from her sworn position as a patrol officer and rehired her in a non-sworn position as a call taker. In September 1992, Ms. Coffey's primary physician, Dr. Chang-Zern Hong, took her off this light-duty work. He reasoned that her job duties, combined with the stress of pressing her claim before the Board, rendered her incapable of continuing to work as a call taker.
In addition to Doctors Emerson, Anderson, Fu, and Hong, Ms. Coffey has consulted with at least thirteen other physicians and health care providers.
Although Ms. Coffey's medical history prior to January 1, 1990, is largely undisputed, it is significant because the etiology of her disability is at issue. Most relevant to this dispute are four injuries which Ms. Coffey sustained to her back and neck prior to 1990: (1) in 1985 Ms. Coffey sustained a strained right shoulder muscle in a physical training class; (2) in 1986 she pulled a shoulder and neck muscle or nerve while assisting an off-duty officer; (3) in 1987 she pulled a muscle on the right side of her lower back while breaking up a fight; and (4) in 1989 she experienced pain and limited movement of her right shoulder after lifting a toilet bucket.
Ms. Coffey sought medical attention for these injuries from both Dr. Emerson and Dr. Anderson.
B. PROCEDURAL HISTORY
On May 23, 1991 Ms. Coffey applied for permanent occupational disability benefits under the Municipality of Anchorage Police and Fire Retirement Plan III.
At the conclusion of the formal administrative hearing the Board reversed its prior ruling on the permanency of Ms. Coffey's disability and concluded that she was permanently disabled. However, the Board also found that Ms. Coffey had failed to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that her disability was occupationally related. The Board ordered that Ms. Coffey receive permanent non-occupational disability benefits. These benefits are significantly less than occupational benefits. See AMC 3.85.230, 3.85.240 (1989).
Ms. Coffey appealed to the superior court the issue of whether her disability was non-occupational. The superior court reversed the Board's determination and ordered the Board to award Ms. Coffey permanent occupational disability benefits. The Board appeals.
A. STANDARD OF REVIEW
We review the merits of the Board's administrative determination de novo. When we review a decision of the
There are four recognized standards employed to review administrative decisions: "the `substantial evidence' test for questions of fact; the `reasonable basis' test for questions of law involving agency expertise; the `substitution of judgment' test for questions of law where no expertise is involved; the `reasonable and not arbitrary' test for review of administrative regulations." Jager v. State, 537 P.2d 1100, 1107 n. 23 (Alaska 1975).
Both parties and the superior court agree that this case should be reviewed under the substantial evidence test. We concur, because the only Board ruling at issue is its determination concerning the etiology of Ms. Coffey's disability. The question of whether Ms. Coffey's disability was the result of an injury she received while making an arrest on January 1, 1990 is purely a question of fact.
Land & Marine Rental Co. v. Rawls, 686 P.2d 1187, 1188-89 (Alaska 1984) (citations omitted).
Yahara, 851 P.2d at 72.
B. THE BOARD'S RULING WAS NOT SUPPORTED BY SUBSTANTIAL EVIDENCE
Under the Anchorage Municipal Code the Board must "determine whether an occupational disability exists based upon medical records and other evidence satisfactory to the Retirement Board." AMC 3.85.230(B) (1989). The issue before this court is whether there was substantial evidence upon which the Board could have concluded that Ms. Coffey's injuries were not occupationally related.
First, the Board argues that its decision was substantially motivated by its belief that Ms. Coffey "simply was not telling the truth." Its basis for this conclusion is Ms. Coffey's admission that she never told any of the examining physicians about her prior shoulder injuries.
Second, the Board argues that none of the physician's diagnoses are reliable because they are all based on insufficient evidence. The Board claims that Doctors Fu, Hong, and Rosomoff had no knowledge of the toilet bowl incident for which Ms. Coffey was hospitalized. It also avers that Dr. Hong testified that he did not weigh prior possible causes when rendering his medical opinion. The Board gives no record cite to substantiate these claims. The closest it comes to identifying evidence supporting its position is testimony by Ms. Coffey that she had not told any of the examining physicians that she had been diagnosed with myofascial pain syndrome in 1987. The Board omits the remainder of Ms. Coffey's testimony in which she explains that until she testified she had been unaware that in 1987 she had been diagnosed with this condition.
The Board further emphasized Dr. Rosomoff's testimony, which recognized that in making a diagnosis a physician is at the mercy of what a patient tells him. Dr. Rosomoff actually testified that he is at the mercy of what the patient tells him, or of whatever medical records exist. Regardless of what Dr. Rosomoff said, none of the physicians relied solely on Ms. Coffey's description of her symptoms in creating their diagnoses. They all used her medical records, independent testing, and observations. At the time they examined Ms. Coffey all of the physicians, except for the emergency room physicians, had access to her medical records. Dr. Hong even testified that he may have been aware of Dr. Anderson's 1987 diagnosis of myofascial pain syndrome, and that he definitely knew that Ms. Coffey had experienced other trauma previous to the January 1990 incident. Similarly, Dr. Rosomoff clearly had Ms. Coffey's medical records because he later noted that although she did not tell him that she had fractured her arm, he was aware of this injury. Dr. Rosomoff noted that there had been inconsistencies in the descriptions Ms. Coffey gave to him, but that this was typical of patients.
Third, the Board relied on a statement by Dr. Rosomoff that myofascial pain syndrome can be hereditary, and thus need not be caused by trauma. However, Dr. Rosomoff went on to testify:
Dr. Rosomoff never testified that Ms. Coffey's injury was hereditary. The only causal diagnosis he made linked her injury to the January 1, 1990 injury.
Fourth, the Board focused on the three-to-four pound Kevlar body armor which Ms. Coffey was wearing at the time she was kicked. The Board asserts that Dr. Hong stated that because of the vest, the kick could not have caused her disability. What Dr. Hong said in fact was that because of the vest it is unlikely that the impact of the kick was the cause of the disability. He hypothesized that it is not unlikely that Ms. Coffey's condition was the result of her falling when she was kicked. Additionally, Dr. Rosomoff testified that he had treated other officers who had incurred injuries similar to Ms. Coffey's while wearing Kevlar vests.
Fifth, the Board argues that the fact that Ms. Coffey sought no medical attention for
Sixth, the Board asserts that Dr. Emerson's records demonstrate that he did not begin treating Ms. Coffey's shoulder until January 17, 1990, almost two weeks after the accident. The Board claims this time lag is also inconsistent with the disability having been incurred on January 1, 1990. However, a closer examination of Dr. Emerson's notes reveals that the annotation the Board referenced is in fact a progress report on how Ms. Coffey's shoulder was improving. Such an annotation clearly indicates Dr. Emerson was in the process of treating a shoulder injury.
Seventh, the Board argues that Ms. Coffey's myofascial pain syndrome was a preexisting condition evidenced by Dr. Anderson's diagnosis of mild myofascial pain syndrome in 1987. However, this court has held that the existence of a preexisting condition will not bar an employee from receiving occupational disability benefits. "It is basic that an accident which produces injury by precipitating the development of a latent condition or by aggravating a preexisting condition is a cause of that injury." Hester v. State, Pub. Employees Retirement Bd., 817 P.2d 472, 475 (Alaska 1991) (citing 22 Am.Jur.2d Damages § 280 (1988)).
None of the foregoing arguments articulates any evidence which the Board could reasonably have relied on to conclude that Ms. Coffey's disability was not the result of her occupational injury of January 1990. All of the Board's contentions focus on the credibility of testimony given. Not one of the Board's assertions offers a fact or piece of evidence which would contradict Ms. Coffey's claim that her disability is work related. All of the physicians, including those the Board asked Ms. Coffey to consult, related her condition directly or indirectly to the trauma suffered during the January 1990 injury.
Yahara v. Construction & Rigging, Inc., 851 P.2d 69, 72 (Alaska 1993), provides that under the substantial evidence test this court will affirm the Board's decision where the Board is faced with conflicting medical opinions, and the Board elects to rely on one opinion rather than the other. However, this case is distinguishable from Yahara because, as we have already noted, the Board did not have conflicting medical opinions from which to choose. Although the Board correctly argues that this court should not substitute its judgment for the Board's own preference between competing medical opinions, the Board never references a single medical opinion contrary to Ms. Coffey's claim. In fact, there is a complete absence of contrary or conflicting medical opinion.
The Board further argues that there was substantial evidence for its decision because it rejected all of Ms. Coffey's proofs. It asserts that the trier of fact is entitled to disbelieve witnesses or otherwise discount their testimony. Credibility determinations made by the trier of fact are generally left undisturbed by this court on review. See Richey v. Oen, 824 P.2d 1371, 1376 (Alaska 1992); Jackson v. White, 556 P.2d 530, 532 n.
In Innes, we held the witness's demeanor may convince the trier of fact that the truth lies directly opposite of the statements of the witness, especially where the witness is interested in the outcome of the case. 370 P.2d at 177. However, there are two flaws with the Board's application of Innes to this case. First, the Innes court was concerned with allowing trial courts the discretion to be skeptical of testimony by biased or interested witnesses. The only interested witness to testify was Ms. Coffey; the testifying physicians were not interested parties. Second, this holding has nothing to do with whether merely discrediting all of the witnesses would constitute sufficient evidence for an administrative agency's decision.
Baxter is also distinguishable, because it involved a question of whether circumstantial evidence could constitute substantial evidence. 806 P.2d at 1375. In the case at bar the agency had no evidence, circumstantial or testimonial, upon which it based its decision.
C. THE SUPERIOR COURT PROPERLY DECLINED TO REMAND THE CASE FOR FURTHER EVIDENTIARY PROCEEDINGS
The superior court did not err in reversing the Board, rather than remanding the case to the Board for further evidentiary proceedings. The Board argues that the superior court had misgivings over the sufficiency of the Board's inquiry into the work relatedness of Ms. Coffey's disability. It claims that the superior court erred in deciding the issue in the face of such uncertainties. The Board asserts that where the superior court finds that an administrative agency failed to consider an important factual issue, that issue is not to be decided by the superior court, but rather the case should be remanded to the agency for further fact finding. The Board advances a series of cases in which this court held that remand was necessary because the factual record was inadequate and further evidentiary hearings were needed: Southeast Alaska Conservation Council v. State, 665 P.2d 544 (Alaska 1983); Arkanakyak v. State, Commercial Fisheries Entry Comm'n, 759 P.2d 513 (Alaska 1988); City of Nome v. Catholic Bishop of N. Alaska, 707 P.2d 870 (Alaska 1985).
The Board correctly articulates the circumstances under which remand to an agency is appropriate. However, it fails to note that the case at bar is distinguishable from these cases. In each of the cases cited, this court clarified which interpretation of an agency rule or regulation should be applied to the given case. Remand was necessary for evidentiary hearings which applied the new rule. These further evidentiary proceedings were required because the agency had an incomplete record or had made insufficient findings of fact with regard to the newly settled law.
In City of Nome, we held that the superior court had properly remanded the case to the relevant administrative agency because equity required additional investigation. 707 P.2d at 877. The court concluded that the Board had made incomplete findings of fact because the Board awaited judicial clarification of the legal "mess" involved in the case. Id. In Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, we held that the superior court could have remanded to the agency if it found that the decisional document issued by the agency contained an inadequately reasoned explanation. 665 P.2d at 549. Similarly, in Phillips v. Houston Contracting, Inc., 732 P.2d 544 (Alaska 1987), a case not discussed by the Board, we remanded the case after we determined how to interpret a rule. The Board had not made all of the findings of fact which were necessary to apply the new interpretation of this rule. See Phillips, 732 P.2d at 547. Likewise, in Arkanakyak,
In the case at bar the superior court did not reverse due to the Board's failure to consider a factual issue, or because it found that the record needed to be supplemented with further fact finding. Instead, the superior court reversed the Board because even presuming that all of the inferences made by the Board were accurate, "there was still not substantial evidence to justify the Board's determination that Appellant's permanent disability was not caused by the work-related injury she suffered on January 1, 1990."
The Board contends that the following statement, which appears in a footnote to the superior court's order, demonstrates that the superior court found the fact finding incomplete, and therefore, should have remanded:
Although this language emphasizes that the occupational relatedness of Ms. Coffey's injury was not the focus of the Board's hearing, the superior court does not assert that the Board did not make sufficient findings of fact as to this issue.
It is disingenuous for the Board to argue that this case should be remanded. This is not a case where necessary findings of fact were not made. The Board's "Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law" include a section specifically noting the Board's ruling on the occupational nature of Ms. Coffey's injury:
Additionally, the Board itself argues that all four elements of a disability claim were presented and argued at the hearing.
D. THE SUPERIOR COURT DID NOT ERR IN COMMENTING THAT THE TESTIMONY OF ALL THE PHYSICIANS WAS CLEAR AND CONSISTENT
The Board argues that the superior court's finding that the medical evidence was "clear and consistent" exceeded the court's permissible scope of review.
E. THE SUPERIOR COURT'S AWARD OF ATTORNEY'S FEES WAS NOT AN ABUSE OF DISCRETION
"Appellate Rule 508(e), rather than Civil Rule 82, controls any award of attorney's fees when the superior court determines an administrative appeal." Diedrich v. City of Ketchikan, 805 P.2d 362, 371 (Alaska 1991); see also Kodiak W. Alaska v. Bob Harris Flying Serv., 592 P.2d 1200 (Alaska 1979); Alaska R.App.P. 601(b). Appellate Rule 508(e) provides that "[a]ttorney's fees may be allowed in an amount to be determined by the court." Thus, the superior court has broad discretion to award a party reasonable attorney's fees, and we will only reverse where there is an abuse of discretion. See Cook Inlet Pipe Line Co. v. Alaska Pub. Util. Comm'n, 836 P.2d 343, 348 (Alaska 1992). The superior court awarded Ms. Coffey $3,200.00 in attorney's fees and $2,056.00 in appellate costs. This award was within the discretion of the court. We affirm the superior court's award of attorney's fees to Ms. Coffey.
We AFFIRM the superior court's reversal of the Board's denial of permanent occupational benefits to Ms. Coffey. The superior court correctly concluded that substantial evidence did not support the Board's determination that Ms. Coffey's permanent disability was not caused by the work-related injury she suffered on January 1, 1990. The Board has not pointed to any evidence upon which it could have relied in concluding Ms. Coffey's disability was not occupationally related.
The superior court did not err by reversing rather than remanding this case. The superior court concluded that the lack of sufficient evidence was not the result of the Board failing to consider an important factual issue. Over fifteen physicians and health care providers testified at the hearing, and all who opined on the etiology of Ms. Coffey's disability related it to the January 1, 1990 incident. Thus, the Board had ample opportunity to, and in fact did, consider the factual issue in question.
The superior court did not exceed its authority or inject itself into the role of the trier of fact when it commented that the physicians' testimony was clear and consistent. All of the physicians who offered an opinion on the etiology of Ms. Coffey's disability testified that it was directly or indirectly caused by the occupational injury of January 1, 1990.
The superior court did not abuse its discretion in awarding attorney's fees and costs. The award of attorney's fees also is AFFIRMED.